Drag queens, Dumpster fires: If you’re not watching Texas politics, you’re missing out | Opinion

·3 min read

Texas politics has reached peak reality show.

Just the last few days, the current season of the Legislature has included drag and burlesque performers, other legal gyrations, heavy drinking and the outright expulsion of an East Texas lawmaker deemed too disgusting. Yes, even for the Texas House.

There was a mysterious Dumpster fire. And that was before the new episode dropped in the long-running Attorney General Ken Paxton plotline.

But some Texans are missing the show.

Less than half the registered voters in Texas follow any news site or social media regularly at all, much less follow state government, according to University of Texas at Austin polling.

And those are mainly the party faithful. Less than one-third of independent voters follow a particular news or social media site.

Look, I know Austin might not seem funny right now. It’s more fun joking about U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz ducking out to Cancún, or watching a TV smackdown between Disney and Ron DeSantis.

Chairs sit empty at the press table in the Texas House chamber at midday May 24, 2023.
Chairs sit empty at the press table in the Texas House chamber at midday May 24, 2023.

Gov. Greg Abbott runs a dull state government. He seems intent on keeping it that way.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick still has his showbiz moments. But in general, he’s a far cry from the days when he was a TV and radio show host known mainly for once painting his chest Houston Oilers blue on camera and for narrating his own vasectomy.

They’re not show-stoppers. But the rest of the show under the dome is really worth logging in.

Yet only half of Texas Republicans pay any attention to Austin or state government at all.

As recently as last fall, 46% actually said they hadn’t really heard much about Paxton’s legal problems, according to two salient polls from the Austin-based Texas Politics Project.

Democrats aren’t much better. I still hear almost every week from Democrats who get Patrick and Paxton confused.

In another Texas Politics Project poll recently, only 32% of Democrats bother to read a local newspaper or news website at all.

For Republicans, that figure is only 18%.

“The nationalization of politics” — the focus on national networks and Washington news — “draws attention further away from the state level,” said Joshua Blank of the Texas Politics Project, part of UT Austin.

National news sites, he said, are “only interested in a headline. People get a picture of Texas politics that’s limited to the noisiest and most scandalous things that go on.”

The decline in readership for state and local government coverage instead of Washington news also meant that reporters get reassigned.

In an era of corporate downsizing, Capitol old-timers guess there are about 40% fewer print, online, TV and radio reporters covering state government now than in 2015.

With the exception of public news sites such as the Texas Tribune, the newspapers and websites have smaller staffs. Outlying news outlets, TV or radio stations rarely send reporters at all.

Fewer reporters means fewer stories told. And that means less information about state government.

“The numbers represent the decline in coverage,” Blank said. “Most of Texas has no reporter explaining the effects.”

TCU political science veteran Jim Riddlesperger said the nation’s political divide has also split news and social media. Republicans have since further divided with show host Tucker Carlson’s departure from Fox News.

“We use different sources, we read different papers, and we watch point-of-view news,” he wrote by email. “Younger folks focus on sports, technology and entertainment. It’s possible to be very well-read — but not on politics.”

You can still catch the last episode and one heck of a reunion show.